The Puzzly Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe

[Image courtesy of the Poetry Foundation.]

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most influential writers in all of American literature. Not only did he come to epitomize all things ghastly and unnerving in Gothic horror with chillers like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” but he also trailblazed the detective fiction genre with his character C. Auguste Dupin.

He also made an impact on the world of puzzles.

[Image courtesy of the National Cryptologic Museum Foundation.]

Those familiar with Poe’s works of fiction probably think I’m referring to his story “The Gold-Bug,” one of, if not the first, stories to not only mention cryptography, but to include a substitution cipher (a cipher where each letter in the alphabet is represented by a different letter, number, or symbol).

In “The Gold-Bug,” an unnamed narrator meets the unusual William Legrand, a man obsessed with restoring his family’s lost fortune. Legrand shows off a large scarab-like insect, the titular gold bug. A month later, the narrator and Legrand are reunited when the obsessed Legrand (along with his servant Jupiter) goes off on a expedition to discover the location of the buried treasure of the legendary Captain Kidd.

As it turns out, a piece of paper Jupiter used to collect the gold bug had traces of invisible ink on it, revealing a cipher containing instructions for how to find Kidd’s gold.

[Image courtesy of Bookriot.]

But this was far from Poe’s only dalliance with codebreaking. In fact, he helped popularize the art and science of cryptography with a series of articles in a Philadelphia publication called Alexander’s Weekly Messenger.

In December of 1839, he laid out a challenge to his readers, boasting that he could crack any substitution cipher that readers submitted:

It would be by no means a labor lost to show how great a degree of rigid method enters into enigma-guessing. This may sound oddly; but it is not more strange than the well know fact that rules really exist, by means of which it is easy to decipher any species of hieroglyphical writing — that is to say writing where, in place of alphabetical letters, any kind of marks are made use of at random. For example, in place of A put % or any other arbitrary character –in place of B, a *, etc., etc.

Let an entire alphabet be made in this manner, and then let this alphabet be used in any piece of writing. This writing can be read by means of a proper method. Let this be put to the test. Let any one address us a letter in this way, and we pledge ourselves to read it forthwith–however unusual or arbitrary may be the characters employed.

For the next six months, Poe tackled every cipher sent to Alexander’s. According to Poe, he received around a hundred ciphers, though historians have stated that only 36 distinct ciphers appeared in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, 15 of which had solutions or partial solutions printed.

Nonetheless, it’s believed that Poe solved each of those 36 ciphers.

[Image courtesy of Awesome Stories.]

He followed up this impressive feat with an essay about cryptography in July of 1841 for Graham’s Magazine, “A Few Words on Secret Writing,” in which he discussed ancient methods of encryption and decryption, name-dropping codebreaking icons like Trithemius, Vigenere, and others.

He also published two cryptograms for the readers to solve, both submitted by a man named W.B. Tyler, “a gentleman whose abilities we highly respect.” Poe claimed he didn’t have time to solve either cryptogram, leaving them to the readers to crack. (Naturally, some scholars theorize that W.B. Tyler was none other than Poe himself.)

It would be over a century before the first verifiable solution to a W.B. Tyler cryptogram appeared. Professor Terence Whalen published his solution to the first Tyler cryptogram in 1992, and even offered a $2500 prize to whomever could solve the remaining Tyler cryptogram.

[Image courtesy of Cryptiana.web.]

That prize was claimed 8 years later by a Canadian software expert named Gil Broza, who cracked what turned out to be a polyalphabetic cipher, one in which several substitution alphabets are used.

Naturally, Poe’s interest in secret messages and codebreaking has led some to suspect that secret messages are lurking in his poetry and works of fiction. (Similar conspiracy theories abound regarding the works of Shakespeare.)

To be fair, there is something to this theory.

In a manner similar to Lewis Carroll hiding Alice Liddell’s name in an acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass, Poe dedicated a poem to friend and poet Sarah Anna Lewis by hiding her name, one letter per line, in the poem itself.

[Image courtesy of The Baltimore Post Examiner.]

Of course, Poe’s method was more intricate than Carroll’s. The S in Sarah was the first letter on the first line, the A was the second letter on the second line, the R was the third letter on the third line, and so on. (Hiding coded messages in plain sight in this manner is known as steganography.)

And to this day, the hunt is on for secret messages in Poe’s works, particularly his more esoteric and oddly worded pieces. For instance, his prose poem “Eureka” — a musing on the nature of the universe itself, which actually proposed a Big Bang-like theory for the birth of the universe well before scientists offered the same theory — is believed to contain some sort of secret message or code.

Poe stated on more than one occasion that “human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve.” So if there is a code lurking in his works, someone will surely find it.

And in the meantime, we can still enjoy the chills, the grand ideas, and the mysteries he left behind. That’s quite a puzzly legacy.

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Potent Quotables!


Quotations are a major part of the puzzle landscape. From cryptograms and Syllacrostics to crosswords where you end up with unhelpful clues like “Part 1 of quote,” I’d bet that an avid solver rarely goes a day without encountering a quote somewhere in their puzzling.

I was working on a quote puzzle just the other day, and it occurred to me that, despite the hundreds and hundreds of puzzles involving quotes that I’ve created and edited over the years, I couldn’t think of any that were actually about puzzles.

So, naturally, I went looking for quotes about puzzles.

I had to narrow the field to crosswords, because quotes about puzzles were both too numerous and, oddly enough, not actually about puzzles.

“Each person is an enigma. You’re a puzzle not only to yourself but also to everyone else, and the great mystery of our time is how we penetrate this puzzle.” — Theodore Zeldin

Oh sure, they mention puzzles, but only as a metaphor for something else. People are puzzles, or life is a puzzle, or the world is a puzzle, or writing is a puzzle, or acting is a puzzle, or making a movie is a puzzle. Insert topic, blah blah, puzzle metaphor.

You get the idea.

At least some people stick to the subject of puzzles when getting metaphorical.

“There seem to be two main types of people in the world: crosswords and Sudokus.” — Rebecca McKinsey

Betty White has something to say on that subject:

“I love words. Sudoku I don’t get into, I’m not into numbers that much, and there are people who are hooked on that. But crossword puzzles, I just can’t — if I get a puppy and I paper train him and I put the — if all of a sudden I’d open the paper and there’s a crossword puzzle — ‘No, no, you can’t go on that, honey. I’ll take it.'”

See, now we’re getting into actual crossword quotes.

Oh, no, wait. One more metaphor:

“Fighting with him was like trying to solve a crossword and realizing there’s no right answer.” — Taylor Swift

Apparently Taylor Swift doesn’t know how crossword puzzles work. (Then again, she had that song where Romeo and Juliet had a happy ending, so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree here…)

I shall rebut Miss Swift with a Stephen Sondheim quote: “The nice thing about doing a crossword puzzle is, you know there is a solution.”

Okay, we’re back on track.

This might be the most famous quote about crosswords:


There’s a definite theme of crosswords being associated with retirement and relaxation.

“But I’m really enjoying my retirement. I get to sleep in every day. I do crossword puzzles and eat cake.” — Derek Landy

“I would prefer to live forever in perfect health, but if I must at some time leave this life, I would like to do so ensconced on a chaise longue, perfumed, wearing a velvet robe and pearl earrings, with a flute of champagne beside me and having just discovered the answer to the last problem in a British cryptic crossword.” — Olivia de Havilland

“I enjoy walking my dog and completing crossword puzzles.” — Brian Jacques

Of course, some folks have regrets…

“Do I rue a life wasted doing crosswords? Yes, but I do know the three-letter-word for regret.” — Robert Breault

Others have complaints…

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I won a helicopter in a crossword puzzle competition? There is not much hope though I am afraid, as they never give such practical prizes.” — Leonora Carrington


But, to be honest, my two favorite quotes about crosswords didn’t come from celebrities or revered thinkers. (At least, not yet revered.) They came from college students on Tumblr, sharing observations, either their own or those of others.

“Who did Jessica Simpson last divorce?! Like, I don’t know. I could tell you all about Rousseau though.” — Girl doing a crossword puzzle in class

I think I’ll give the final word to another Tumblr user, who summed up crosswords brilliantly.

“A crossword puzzle is an unholy marriage of spelling bee, trivia contest, and a troll that lives under a bridge and asks you riddles.”

Do you have any favorite quotes about puzzles, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below!

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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Hashtag Hilarity edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’m posting the results of our #PennyDellPuzzleComedy hashtag game!

You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie, hashtag games on Twitter, or@midnight’s Hashtag Wars segment on Comedy Central.

For the last few months, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellPuzzleComedy, mashing up Penny Dell puzzles and anything and everything having to do with stand-up comics, film and television comedians, funny movies, funny shows, funny plays… even one-liners or jokes!

Examples include: David Letterboxesman, The Three Anagr-amigos, or “Take a Letter, Please!”

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!

Puzzle Comedians!

Rodney Danger-Textfields

George Carlinkwords

“Weird Al”-phagrid Yankovic

Dr. Dementossing and Turning

Fill-In Diller / Phyll-Ins Diller

Kenken Jeong

David Cross Pairs

Lewis Blackout!

Andrew Dice Game

Cryptomedian Adam Scrambler

Rows-anne Garden

Alphabet Soupy Sales

Dan Ayk-wordplay

Gilda-Quote Radner

Rose-anagrams Rose-anagrams Dannagrams

Puzzle Comedy Films!

History of the World, Part One and Only

Happy Fill-in More!

Meet the Frameworks

You Don’t Maze with the Zohan

Austin Flower Powers

April Sillycrostics!

Four Square Weddings and a Funeral

Three from Nine to Five


Across and Down and Out in Beverly Hills

Alphabet Duck Soup

Animal Crackers House

Puzzle Comedy TV Shows!

A Bits and Pieces of Fry and Laurie

Two for One and a Half Men

Rowan and Martin’s Fill-In

Three of a Kind’s Company

“I Love Loosey Tiles!”

Saturday Night Line ‘Em Up

Sanford and Sunrays

All in the Family Ties

Happy Daisy

Leave It to Weaver Words

The Odds and Evens Couple

[Plus there were a few Seinfeld references in puzzly form:]

“By the way, they’re real, and they’re Sudoku Spectacular!”

“The Bubbles Boy”

Puzzle Jokes and Routines!

“Who’s on first and last?” / “Who’s Calling on first! What’s Left on second!”

Knock, Knock! Who’s Calling?

Why did the chicken cross the Middle of the Road? To get to the other Slide-o-gram!

“Nehh…What’s Left, Doc?”

How do you send a message to a skeleton? By Crypt-O-Gram!

What do you get when you insult a puzzle editor’s work? Cross words!

Have you heard about the most amazing Framework ever constructed? It was a Revelation!

Who’s there?
Guess Who?
Hey, that’s my favorite puzzle!

Who’s there?
Lotto who?
I bet there’s a lotto people entering this hashtag game!

Who’s there?
The Wizard
The Wizard who?
The Wizard is wise and humorous. Didn’t you read the blurb?

Who’s there?
Zip It
Zip It who?
Zip it, you! I’ve had enough of your knock-knock jokes

And the PuzzleNation audience got involved as well! @_screenhog tweeted the excellent entries Funny or Diagramless and Patchwords Adams!

Have you come up with any Penny Dell Puzzle Comedy entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

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Cracking the GCHQ Christmas Card!

As you may recall, my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, a few months ago, a government organization in England called the GCHQ — Government Communications Headquarters — released a puzzly Christmas card designed to tax even the savviest puzzle solvers.

They’ve finally released the answers to this mind-blowing series of puzzles, and I’d like to go over some of them with you. Partly to marvel at the puzzle wizardry necessary to solve this challenging holiday gift, and partly to gloat about the parts I managed to solve.

So let’s get to it!

Part 1 was a logic art puzzle where you have to deduce where to place black squares on an open grid in order to form a picture.

Each column and row has a series of numbers in it. These numbers represent runs of black squares in a row, so a 1 means there’s one black square followed by a blank square on either side and a 7 means 7 black squares together with a blank square on either side.

This is mostly a deduction puzzle — figuring out how to place all the strings of black squares with white spaces between them within the space allotted — but no image immediately emerged, which was frustrating. Once the three corner squares started to form though, I realized the answer was a QR code, and the puzzle started to come together nicely.

Part 2 was a series of six multiple-choice brain teasers. I’ll give you the first three questions, along with answers.

Q1. Which of these is not the odd one out?


Now, if you stare at a list of words long enough, you can form your own patterns easily. Here’s the rationale the GCHQ used to eliminate the odd ones out:

STARLET is an odd one out because it does not contain a double letter.
SONNET is an odd one out because it has 6 letters rather than 7.
SAFFRON is an odd one out because it ends in N rather than T.
TORRENT is an odd one out because it starts with T rather than S.
SUGGEST is an odd one out because it is a verb rather than a noun.

SHALLOT is our answer.

Q2. What comes after GREEN, RED, BROWN, RED, BLUE, -, YELLOW, PINK?

After playing around with some associative patterns for a while, I realized that somehow these colors must equate to numbers. First I tried word lengths, but 5-3-5-3-4-___-6-4 didn’t make any sense to me. But then, it hit me: another time where colors and numbers mix.

Pool balls. Of course, the colors and numbers didn’t match, because this is a British puzzle, and they don’t play pool, they play snooker.

So the colored balls in snooker become the numbers 3, 1, 4, 1, 5, -, 2, 6. The numbers of Pi. And now the blank makes sense, because Pi reads 3.1415926, and there’s no 9 ball in snooker.

So the next number in the chain is 5, and 5 is the color BLUE.

Q3. Which is the odd one out?

This one came pretty quickly to me, as the names Oscar Wilde and Charlie Bucket leapt out. And if you follow the phonetic alphabet, you also get Victor Mature, Romeo Beckham, and Shaka Zulu. (I didn’t get Mike Love, however.)

Since Shaka Zulu was the only one where the phonetic alphabet word was the surname, not the first name, SHAKA is the odd one out.

(The other three questions included an encryption puzzle, a number pattern (or progressions puzzle), and a single-letter puzzle.)

Granted, since you could retake this part as many times as you wanted, you could luck your way through or brute force the game by trying every permutation. But managing to solve most of them made this part go much faster.

Part 3 consisted of word puzzles, and was easily my favorite section, because it played to some strengths of mine.

A. Complete the sequence:

Buck, Cod, Dahlia, Rook, Cuckoo, Rail, Haddock, ?

This sequence is a palindrome, so the missing word is CUB.

B. Sum:

pest + √(unfixed – riots) = ?

This one is a little more involved. To complete the formula, you need to figure out what numbers the words represent. And each word is an anagram of a French number. Which gives you:

sept + √(dix-neuf – trois) = ?

Dix-neuf is nineteen and trois is three, so that’s sixteen beneath a square root sign, which equals four. And sept (seven) plus four is eleven.

The French word for eleven is onze, and ZONE is the only anagram word that fits.

C. Samuel says: if agony is the opposite of denial, and witty is the opposite of tepid, then what is the opposite of smart?

This is a terrific brain teaser, because at first blush, it reads like nonsense, until suddenly it clicks. Samuel is Samuel Morse, so you need to use Morse Code to solve this one. I translated “agony” and tried reversing the pattern of dots and dashes, but that didn’t work.

As it turns out, you need to swap the dots and dashes, and that’s what makes “denial” read out. This also worked with “witty” and “tepid,” so when I tried it with “smart,” the opposite was OFTEN.

D. The answers to the following cryptic crossword clues are all words of the same length. We have provided the first four clues only. What is the seventh and last answer?

1. Withdraw as sailors hold festive sing-song
2. It receives a worker and returns a queen
3. Try and sing medley of violin parts
4. Fit for capture
7. ?

Now, I’m not a strong cryptic crossword solver, so this part took FOREVER. Let’s work through it one clue at a time.

1. Withdraw as sailors hold festive sing-song

The word WASSAIL both reads out in “withdraw as sailors hold” and means “festive sing-song.”

2. It receives a worker and returns a queen

The word ANTENNA both “receives” and is formed by “a worker” (ANT) and “returns a queen” (ANNE, reading backward).

3. Try and sing medley of violin parts

The word STRINGY is both an anagram of “try” and “sing” and a violin part (STRING).

4. Fit for capture

The word SEIZURE means both “fit” and “capture.”

Those four answers read out like this:


And with three more answers to go, it seemed only natural that three more seven-letter answers were forthcoming. Plus, when you read the words spelling out downward, you notice that the first four letters of WASSAIL, ANTENNA, STRINGY, and SEIZURE were spelling out.

If you follow that thought, you end up with the start of a 7×7 word square:


And the only seven-letter word starting with INGR that I could think of was INGRATE.


And if the last word is LAYERED…


Then the missing word must be ANNULAR. The original question asked for the last word though, so our answer is LAYERED.

This brings us to Part 4, Number Puzzles, where I must confess that I finally tapped out, because I could only figure out the first of the three progressions involved.

Fill in the missing numbers.

A. 2, 4, 8, 1, 3, 6, 18, 26, ?, 12, 24, 49, 89, 134, 378, 656, 117, 224, 548, 1456, 2912, 4934, 8868, 1771, 3543, …

B. -101250000, -1728000, -4900, 360, 675, 200, ?, …

C. 321, 444, 675, 680, 370, 268, 949, 206, 851, ?, …

In the first one, you’re simply multiplying by 2 as you go.

2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, and so on.

But you begin to exclude every other number as you move into double-digits, triple-digits, quadruple-digits, and beyond.

2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, and so on.

So the answer, 512, becomes the real answer, 52.

But, as I said, I couldn’t crack the other two, and I’m already exhausted just running through these four sections!

And, based on the answers they released recently, Part 5 only got more mindbending from there.

As a matter of fact, not a single entrant managed to get every answer in Part 5 correct. Prizes were awarded to the three people who came closest however, and it turns out a staggering 30,000+ people made it to Part 5. Color me impressed!

This was, without a doubt, the most challenging puzzle suite I have ever seen, and I offer heartfelt kudos to anyone in the PuzzleNation Blog readership who even attempted it!

You’re welcome to try it out for yourself, though. I highly recommend using this link from The Telegraph, which allows you to skip to the next part if you get stumped.

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Get thee to a punnery!

Wordplay is an integral part of many puzzles, from anagrams and rhymes to letter-shifting and palindromes. But perhaps the most predominant form of wordplay is the pun. (Where would Wordplay Wednesday be without them?)

Sometimes puns are Cryptogram answers or Anagram Magic Squares solutions. Sometimes they’re fiendish crossword puzzle clues that send you one way when your answer lies elsewhere, or they’re the key to figuring out the theme entries in a Thursday New York Times puzzle.

Whether it’s a groaner or one that makes you laugh out loud, a pun can add humor and style to a puzzle.

Some of my fellow puzzlers have some classics to their credit, like Penny Press editor Keith Yarbrough’s “Public hanging” for ART, or crossword guru Eileen Saunders’ “Wombmates?” for TWINS.

But it’s not just in puzzles. Social media has given the art of punnery a new lease of life. Several YouTubers have made puns their stock in trade, like My Drunk Kitchen’s Hannah Hart and You Deserve a Drink’s Mamrie Hart. (No relation.)

Check out this video by musician and pun enthusiast Andrew Huang:

Twitter is also home to some monstrously talented punsmiths. Here are two recent favorites I stumbled across:

And did you know there are even contests and prizes for great puns?

Every May, the O. Henry Pun-Off attracts wordplay aficionados from all over to ply their trade in front of a live audience!

For a primo example, here’s a video of champion Jerzy Gwiazdowski busting out a flurry of geography puns:

What are some of your favorite puns, fellow puzzlers? Are they from puzzles, jokes, Internet memes? Leave them in the comments!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

Puzzles in Plain Sight: Coded Puzzles!

Given the nature of my line of work, I think about puzzles a lot. But, as it turns out, even when I’m not thinking about puzzles, puzzles seem to find me anyway.

As followers of our Instagram account know, last night I was reading a collection of supernatural short stories, Dark Detectives, edited by Stephen Jones. Partway through a story titled “Vultures Gather,” I encountered the following passage:

That’s right, an encrypted passage smack dab in the middle of my supernatural mystery story!

As it turns out, our investigators uncover a message left behind by the deceased, indicating that he was murdered! Not only that, but he makes a cagey reference to one of my favorite horror movies in order to provide a method for both exposing and punishing his duplicitous attackers.

It all starts with a letter and two pieces of parchment with Greek lettering. The letter entrusts the paper and their secret contents to the two men, in case anything suspicious should happen. (Fortuitous!)

The investigators, with the help of two of their friend’s books — The Boy’s Book of General Knowledge and The Boy’s Book of Puzzles and Brain Teasers — try to crack it with a simple transposition code, meaning one letter or number represents another. This is the basis of standard cryptograms and many other crypto-puzzles.

[Leela tackling an alien code in Futurama.]

But this only yields gibberish. That is, until they remember something from the letter he left them: “The locks are my favorite books, the key is seven.”

The seventh letter is G, meaning that should be the starting letter of their transposition pattern.

Unraveling the encryption reveals some sinister-sounding magical incantations, which they put aside for the moment.

Then they turn their attention to the remaining bits of code in the letter: the strings (5,2,2,5) and 831214926142252425798. Assuming their friend would want these codes cracked quickly, they employ a simple alphanumeric cipher.

Now, alphanumerics can work several ways.

  • Sometimes, the numbers coincide with those of a push-button telephone, meaning 5 can be J, K, or L.
  • Other times, the numbers represent that letter’s position in the alphabet. A is 1, B is 2, Z is 26, etc.
  • They can also be transposition codes, where each letter corresponds to a random number. This is the case in Codewords.

8312149261422524225798 uses the second style of alphanumeric code. So 8 would be H, 3 would be C…

Wait, that doesn’t work! Unless you remember that “the key is seven,” as mentioned above. Which means that G would be 1, H would be 2, etc.

So now, with some trial and error, 831214926142252425798 becomes 8/3/1/2/14/9/26/14/2/25/24/25/7/9/8, or NIGHTOFTHEDEMON. As it turns out, (5,2,2,5) is a hint to breaking up your answer into words, like the indicator of word length that follows a British-style crossword clue or cryptic crossword clue. This makes the answer NIGHT OF THE DEMON.

[Unfortunately, no one in the story seems to notice that THE is 3 letters, and the clue should’ve read (5,2,3,5). Oops.]

So, in the end, not only did I get a great supernatural detective story (with mystical revenge to boot!), I got a brief refresher on some of the most popular encryption styles employed by puzzlers today.

Not too shabby at all.

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